***Spoiler Warning: Discussion of Fear the Walking Dead show elements through Sunday Night’s episode follows; if you haven’t watched yet, you may want to back out.***
From what I can tell through online viewer reaction, many of us still haven’t decided exactly how we feel about Fear the Walking Dead. The pilot was plodding (save for Frank Dillane’s excellent performance as Nick), the characters weren’t terribly compelling, and we just haven’t gotten a sense of what the series is going for. Last night’s “So Close, Yet So Far” didn’t much help, and on top of that, a couple of troublesome missteps have already been made.
First up and already requiring a defensive interview by Fear showrunner and writer, Dave Erickson, is that by this second hour, three African American characters have already been killed off. As anyone who keeps up with The Walking Dead knows, writers and producers have been defending such audience perceptions for some time.
THR pulled no punches; their second question got right into asking about the deaths — Alicia’s boyfriend Matt (Maestro Harrell [easily predicted, about halfway through the pilot]), Art Costa (Scott Lawrence), the school principal, and Nick’s drug dealer, Calvin (Keith Powers). Logically, Erickson’s answers aren’t so problematic, but with his series a spin-off from a show that’s been battling a perception already, it’s hard to believe he (and Kirkman) wouldn’t be a little more proactively sensitive.
“When we were writing the pilot, it wasn’t something that came up in conversations in the room or with the network. Ultimately, it came down to when we were casting those parts, we didn’t know who was going to live, who would die or how those stories would arc out or not arc out. For us, it was about casting that felt reflective of the community and getting the best actor and that was the final determining factor.
Once the story is playing out in a specific way, that’s the line that you want to follow. It wasn’t as though we were writing those characters and then casting those characters with an intention of, ‘This is going to be the death scene for this episode.’ For that episode, it was about how it would reflect on the characters themselves and how things would play out over the course of the season. I realize it’s clearly become an issue and it’s something we are mindful of. But ultimately it’s trying to tell the story the best way we can and cast the best people we can. I wouldn’t want to go back and recast a character just to avoid…if it doesn’t feel true to the character or the relationship — the relationship with Alicia and Matt or Calvin and Nick — it’s really about the reality of the world that we’re trying to inhabit and trying to have the best actors portray those parts. When you’re dealing with a show where you have a cast that is as diverse as ours is, it’s inevitable that characters of color are going to get bit and are going to turn or die.”
For now, I’m willing to give Erickson the benefit of the doubt. He’s aware of the perception, and didn’t shy away with his answer. Personally, I’m not into watching shows merely to categorize its people — I’m watching for the story and the characters. Now, if every time a new black man shows up, another one bites the dust, I’m definitely going to sit up and pay attention — so we’ll see how it goes after this very public callout.
The second, and for me right now, bigger problem is stupidity. Specifically, Fear’s main character (the show’s Rick, if you will), played by a strong actress (Kim Dickens), is acting in an unreasonable and incomprehensible way. When the series was announced, I had high hopes — not only because it’s a Walking Dead spinoff, but because Dickens was cast as the lead. There’s no doubt the actress can carry her show, but can the character? Because if she was lackluster the first hour, Madison Clark is just plain idiotic throughout most of the second.
After in the pilot, a fully-prepared-for-the-zombie-apocolyse student, Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos) was caught with a knife in school, and gave Madison the kind of heads-up she could chose to ignore, Madison and Tobias meet up at school again when she heads over to the school to steal some Oxycontin for her addict son, Nick. (Yeah, that makes as much sense as you’d expect it to.) Consider that when she meets Tobias the second time, it’s after she, Travis and Nick saw zombie-Calvin (who Nick shot) get up several times after he should have been dead, Madison and Travis are preparing to get the hell out of dodge, and then Tobias and Madison hear “them” (zombies) over the school intercom. Why then would Madison go after a lurching principal who ignores her calling him, until he finally turns around (eyes glazed over, and bloodied) and comes at her, without in any way acknowledging she’s speaking to him. Why would she let him get so close ZombArtie’s ready to take a bite out of her, Tobias has to go after him to defend Madison, and then she in turn very nearly misses being able to save Tobias back. That scene was beyond frustrating, and please don’t tell me it’s because the characters don’t know what we know (about the zombies); any person with a lick of common sense wouldn’t have gone after ZombArtie. Speaking of which, WHY WON’T SHE LISTEN TO TOBIAS, WHO CLEARLY KNOWS SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT’S UP? At the very least, after what she’d seen with Calvin, Madison should be cautious. And by be cautious, I don’t mean refuse to say anything at all…
Later, when Madison returns home and Alicia sees a neighbor attacking people in the yard across the street, and Madison (a guidance counselor, no less) won’t let her daughter go help, but offers up absolutely no reason or explanation. Look, I’m a mother, and I get that you don’t always know what to say in a crisis situation, but say something. “Hey honey, there’s something we don’t quite understand yet going on, we can’t go outside — it’s not safe. People (your sick boyfriend!) are acting strangely, there may be a virus. Until we know what it is, we’re holing up in the house/getting ready to leave for a while.”
The Walking Dead audience has suffered through enough stupidity with characters like Lori and Andrea (early Andrea) to not be alarmed by what’s happening with Madison Clark. It’s hard to be invested in a lead character who walks around like a dipshitty teenager in a cliche horror film, and it’s disappointing to see an actress of Dickens’ caliber having to act this way. But most of all, we’re left wondering if the writers haven’t paid attention to what TWD’s audience responds to. We love fleshed-out, intriguing, smart characters who at least have the sense of an everyperson. We don’t want to have the same diversity concerns already pointed out time and again in the source series. We do want to dig into characters like Castellanos’ Tobias (alarmingly listed for only two episodes) — why does he know so much about what’s happening? — and Dillane’s Nick, and we want Dickens’ Madison to be worthy of her lead actress.
Here’s hoping Fear the Walking Dead’s writers catch on quickly.